Summer birding tour of the Centennial State delivered unforgettable sightings
|Chestnut-collared Longspur by Tony Dvorak,
Macaulay Library/Cornell Lab of Ornithology
I signed up with Colorado Birding Adventures in January. Waiting any longer was risky. Company owner and chief guide Carl Bendorf runs his “Best of Colorado Summer Birding” tour twice a year, always in June, and it sells out. Ten birders per trip, no more.
A month before departure, juicing my anticipation, I changed
the screensaver on my phone to a Lewis’s woodpecker, and my laptop wallpaper to
a chestnut-collared longspur. Soon, with luck, I’d be seeing these and other
birds in Colorado’s grasslands, foothills, mountains, and even some urban
environments. Carl’s well-scouted itinerary would take us where the birds are,
with emphasis on hard-to-find specialties.
We traveled in two 6-seater vehicles and spent every night
at the Fairfield Inn in Longmont, 40 miles north of Denver and 20 miles from
Rocky Mountain National Park. When birding all day, it’s nice to stay in the
same place. Carl and assistant guide Bill Schmoker live in Longmont, so the
logistics worked in their favor, too.
Our first full day of birding took us to Pawnee National
Grassland. Target birds here were mountain plover (a declining species with a
misleading name), chestnut-collared longspur, thick-billed longspur, and burrowing
owl. All were “hiding in plain view” on the wide-open shortgrass prairie, but
with Carl’s expertise we found them. Horned lark, lark bunting (Colorado’s
state bird) and western meadowlark were everywhere, not hiding at all, and the
occasional pronghorn antelope dotted the treeless landscape.
|Ptarmigan country: Rocky Mountain National Park
We entered Rocky Mountain National Park the next morning full of anticipation. Our goal: white-tailed ptarmigan, a ground-hugging resident of alpine tundra. The park’s Trail Ridge Road led us to Medicine Bow Curve, elevation 11,600 feet.
|White-tailed Ptarmigan by Carl Bendorf
After a tense 30-minute search, two ptarmigans surrendered
their cover, charming us all with close-up looks. The birds initially flew a
short distance, aiding our search immensely. We slapped high fives while Carl and
Bill breathed sighs of relief. When people depend on you for once-in-a-lifetime
birds, guides naturally feel some pressure.
The roll continued 20 minutes later outside the Alpine Visitor Center just up the road. While most of us were using the restrooms or buying souvenirs, Carl and Bill spotted six brown-capped rosy-finches on a patch of snow, about 40 feet below the observation deck.
|Brown-capped Rosy-Finch by Carl Bendorf
The real gifts could fly away at any moment.
The drill was effective, the group reassembled, and there
they were, the rosy-finches, like they’d fluttered down from a heavenly aviary
just for us. What a bonus: close views of another cryptic resident of the
summer tundra, a species we didn’t really expect to see.
With ptarmigan and rosy-finch in the bag by 10 a.m., we were tempted to exit the park immediately and purchase lottery tickets at the nearest Loaf ‘N Jug.
|Moose by Carl Bendorf
We would return to RMNP on our last day, but first came the Southern Swing, a 400-mile loop beyond Colorado Springs and back home along a raging Arkansas River, and through towns like Canon City, Salida and Buena Vista. It was a long but rewarding day, filled with memorable birds.
In a brushy field of cholla near Pueblo we watched the
courtship behavior of the Cassin’s sparrow, a lifer for most of us, and a bird not
even on my radar when the trip began.
Our van and SUV creeped around a neighborhood in Salida
before finally locating some noisy pinyon jays. Carl knew their address. Mountain
and western bluebirds lived on the block, too. A few human residents gave us
|Lewis's Woodpecker by Carl Bendorf
The woodpecker is named after Meriweather Lewis, who collected
the type specimen during the Lewis and Clark Expedition (1804-06). I’d wanted
to see one quite badly ever since missing my chance in 2019, when for several
days a vagrant Lewis’s visited a nature center feeder in downstate Effingham
County—the first Illinois record of the species.
Lifers are great, but the Colorado tour produced many birds
that I’d only encountered once or twice before. These were special, too: band-tailed pigeon; broad-tailed hummingbird; golden
eagle (two youngsters on a massive cliffside nest); Williamson’s sapsucker; Cordilleran
flycatcher; Clark’s nutcracker (yes, that Clark); pygmy nuthatch; American
dipper; pine grosbeak; green-tailed towhee; MacGillivray’s warbler; Lazuli
bunting; and western tanager.
|From left: Bill Schmoker, Jeff Reiter and Carl Bendorf
We tallied 129 species over the five days. A few hoped-for
birds eluded us, like scaled quail, ferruginous hawk, and American three-toed
woodpecker. But I heard no complaints—not at the end, not all week. Our birding
cups were full, our moods Rocky Mountain high.
Returning to the hotel on the last night, Carl said, “It’s good to leave a few birds on the table. If this was easy it wouldn’t be fun.”
He’s right, of course. Best to save a few birds for next
Copyright 2023 by Jeff Reiter. All rights reserved.